(Canon EOS 70D, 100mm, 1/160sec, f/5.6, ISO-400)

From a view to a kill (with apologies to Ian Fleming)

Warning: This post contains images of the aftermath of a lion kill

It had been an iffy game drive. You know the sort – lots of drive and not a lot of game.

It was our last evening at Cheetah Plains in the Sabi Sands Wildtuin. For three days we had had some of the most incredible encounters with wildlife and Andrew, our guide, was hoping for more of the same that night. The animals, however, had other plans.

We had seen a solitary bull impala, an ostrich in the distance and some elephants having a dust-bath as the Sun sank below the horizon.

Elephants having a dust bath at sunset (Canon EOS 70D, 115mm, 1/200sec, f/4.5, ISO-400)

Elephants having a dust bath at sunset (Canon EOS 70D, 115mm, 1/200sec, f/4.5, ISO-400)

As Andrew drove around trying to find animals we just found the odd one scattered here and there: the tail end of a group of elephants leaving Sydney’s Dam; a zebra with a young foal; a couple of waterbucks.

A zebra and her foal, taken after sunset (Canon EOS 70D, 235mm, 1/400sec, f/5, ISO-10000)

A zebra and her foal, taken after sunset (Canon EOS 70D, 235mm, 1/400sec, f/5, ISO-10000)

Eventually Andrew appeared to admit defeat and headed off down a track to a suitable spot for our sundowners.

Defeat, however, is not a word in Andrew’s vocabulary. Even as we drove along, chasing the rapidly retreating orange sky, he was scanning the radio frequencies for any indication of a sighting. Suddenly he halted and asked us if we minded missing out on our sundowners. There were some lions heading into an area where we had traversing rights. He couldn’t guarantee that they would keep on coming but we could head over to the boundary and wait for them. Lions or a G&T? – there was no contest.

Ten minutes later we stopped at the side of the main road south from the Gowrie gate.

Within minutes the last lingerings of the light had succumbed to the deep black of an African night. We waited in the dark, straining to hear any sound that might indicate the presence of the predators.

How Andrew picked his parking spot, I’ll never know but, some 15 minutes later, we found ourselves in the right place at the right time. The first indication that something was about to happen was the soft purring of a Toyota engine – not the cat sound that we were waiting for but its precursor. Then, we spotted the orange glow of a spotlight flicking around the vegetation. Finally, Andrew whispered, “There they are!” My Western eyes couldn’t cope with the dark as well as his, so I saw nothing until he swung his spotlight onto the lead cat.

Our first sight of the Nkuhuma Pride, caught in Andrew's spotlight (Canon EOS 70D, 100mm, 1/15sec, f/4.5, ISO-12800)

Our first sight of the Nkuhuma Pride, caught in Andrew’s spotlight (Canon EOS 70D, 100mm, 1/15sec, f/4.5, ISO-12800)

There were five lionesses in all, the Nkuhuma pride. They each walked silently in front of our vehicle and crossed the road heading towards Sydney’s Dam. Andrew’s instincts earlier on that afternoon had been right, it was just his timing that had been off.

The pride came within the range of my flashgun (Canon EOS 70D, 100mm, 1/160sec, f/5.6, ISO-400)

The pride came within the range of my flashgun (Canon EOS 70D, 100mm, 1/160sec, f/5.6, ISO-400)

As the Land Cruiser from Elephant Plains turned away, we took over the escort duties. To me, they just looked like they were out for a walk but Andrew knew otherwise.

Andrew's positioning had been perfect, the pride crossed the road right in front of the vehicle (Canon EOS 70D, 100mm, 1/160sec, f/5.6, ISO-400)

Andrew’s positioning had been perfect, the pride crossed the road right in front of the vehicle (Canon EOS 70D, 100mm, 1/160sec, f/5.6, ISO-400)

He told us that he thought they were hunting and that they would probably go after the herd of impala that were grazing just below the dam. Driving around the pride, he took us to a position overlooking the impala and turned off his engine and lights.

Turning off the lights was essential if we were not going to influence the outcome of the hunt – we didn’t want to give either species an advantage. Sitting in the vehicle on a dark, moonless night, we could hear the impalas chomping on the grass but we couldn’t see them. Neither could we see the lions. For all we knew, they could have walked past us and on into the depths of the night.

Everyone in the vehicle was silent as we waited for events to unfold.

Suddenly there was a sound like distant thunder as more than a hundred tiny hooves pounded into the dusty soil. Then … nothing. Total silence. Nothing moved.

With the spotlight back on we could see what was happening (Canon EOS 70D, 100mm, 1/30sec, f/4.5, ISO-12800)

With the spotlight back on we could see what was happening (Canon EOS 70D, 100mm, 1/30sec, f/4.5, ISO-12800)

Andrew had just started to say that he thought the lions had blown their chance when we saw a female impala sprint in our direction. She was followed closely by a lioness. When the hunter stumbled on the uneven ground, it looked like this particular impala was going to live to graze another day. Just then two more lionesses sprinted in from our right. There was the briefest of squeaks from the impala and then the hunt was over.

The antelope was shredded in seconds as the hungry lios tore into their meal (Canon EOS 70D, 100mm, 1/160sec, f/5.6, ISO-400)

The antelope was shredded in seconds as the hungry lios tore into their meal (Canon EOS 70D, 100mm, 1/160sec, f/5.6, ISO-400)

Within seconds the five lionesses had shredded the unfortunate antelope.

The lions shared the kill without any bickering (Canon EOS 70D, 250mm, 1/160sec, f/5.6, ISO-400)

The lions shared the kill without any bickering (Canon EOS 70D, 250mm, 1/160sec, f/5.6, ISO-400)

In more than 30 years of safaris I had never seen one animal kill another (apart from on TV) and I hadn’t been sure how I would react when I saw my first kill. In the event I found it exhilarating. I know that an animal had just lost its life but, in doing so, it had extended the lives of five other animals. It is how nature works. Until it died, the impala had had a good life. Much better, I suspect, than the animals whose meat I eat on a daily basis.

What happened next was totally unexpected.

As the lions were enjoying their meal, the air filled with a strange sound that was a cross between a scream and a cackle. It was unlike anything that I have ever heard before. At least seven hyenas had arrived and they wanted their piece of the action.

One of the hyenas can be seen in the background as the lions carry on eating (Canon EOS 70D, 100mm, 1/160sec, f/5.6, ISO-400)

One of the hyenas can be seen in the background as the lions carry on eating (Canon EOS 70D, 100mm, 1/160sec, f/5.6, ISO-400)

They circled the lions, coming ever closer. Their calls assaulted our senses. They penetrated deep within our bodies and they left a memory that few of us there that night will ever forget.

The hyenas’ cries seemed to increase the speed with which the lions ate. Only when one of them crossed some invisible line did one of the cats break off from its meal long enough to chase the pack back before resuming feeding again.

Having chased the hyenas they returned to their meal (Canon EOS 70D, 360mm, 1/160sec, f/5.6, ISO-400)

Having chased the hyenas they returned to their meal (Canon EOS 70D, 360mm, 1/160sec, f/5.6, ISO-400)

After a while we left the lionesses to finish their meal in peace as, our hearts still pounding, we headed back to camp for ours.

It was a fitting last night for a trip that had exceeded our expectations.

That game drive illustrates how important a good guide is to making a holiday memorable. Andrew Khosa’s persistence in trying to find a good sighting and his knowledge of the animals, and their behaviour, enabled us to have this memorable experience. Undoubtedly, he is one of the best guides that we have ever had. Thank you Andrew.

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Idube Game Reserve

Our drive from Johannesburg had taken longer than expected, mainly due to roadworks on the N4 but, at 3pm, we still arrived at Idube Lodge in good time for the afternoon game drive. To our surprise lunch was still being served. Game lodges work to a different timetable from the rest of the world.

Idube, which is Shangaan (the local language) for Zebra, is one of the smaller reserves that make up Sabi Sands Wildtuin in South Africa. Like all the reserves we visited, Idube only caters for a small number of guests, giving it an intimate atmosphere. The staff there were the friendliest that we came across on our trip. The other reserves had friendly staff too but Idube’s somehow made us feel more at home. Some meals were eaten with guests and guides alike sharing a long table on the lawn and this helped engender the family atmosphere.

After lunch we were shown to our rooms, past a small herd of nyala grazing on the lawn, to find our bags were already there. As I unpacked my camera and lenses and prepared them for our first game dive, I listened to monkeys scampering over the roof of our chalet. It was good to be back in Africa.

The room had a huge double bed and there was plenty of space for charging all the electronic equipment we travel with these days. The only drawback I could find was that the wi-fi was only available in the buildings surrounding reception, a minor quibble.

At 4 o’clock we headed towards the game vehicles and met Matt, our guide, and Lonnet, his tracker. Recent rains meant that animals were quite widely dispersed but Matt and Lonnet found plenty of game to keep us interested: nyala, impala, waterbuck and steenbok, for example.

Following lions while at Idube

Following lions while at Idube

As we drove Matt was radioing other guides about what was around. Animal names were always in the vernacular, a code we would have to learn if we wanted to find out what was going on. For some reason I already knew that ingwe is Shangaan for leopard, the animal I most wanted to see, so I was listening out for this.

On our seven hour drive to Sabi we had tried to count the number of wild, uncollared leopards we had seen in more than a score of visits to game parks over the years. We decided the number was nine. That’s not a bad average, considering how well camouflaged these felids are. Nevertheless, I was hoping to improve on those figures by the end of the trip.

Our journey through the bush was interrupted as, suddenly, Matt stopped the Landrover, U-turned and headed back the way we had come. It was obvious that he knew where something was but what was it? Matt wasn’t saying. Before long he brought the vehicle to a halt, alongside another vehicle, in the middle of a crash of white rhinos.

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Even the baby filled my frame

For the first time in my life I realised that it was possible to have too much lens on your camera! I was using my 100-400mm lens and it was impossible to get the entire body of any of the pachyderms in my shots, not even the baby! I didn’t want to waste time changing lenses so I grabbed a few close-ups before using my mobile phone for the wide shots. After that drive, I always had a wideangle lens on my other camera body, ready for occasions such as this.

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The only way to get four rhinos in one image was to use my phone

Four rhinos made up the main group and there was a male that stood apart from them who was showing interest in the others, or at least interest in a member of the group. When I asked Matt if someone had radioed this in, he said no but he had spotted the other vehicle.

I later discovered that guides are not allowed to radio in the location of rhinos because, in the past, poachers have used this information to help them find the animals too. I was also told that it is illegal to post geo-tagged mobile phone photos. I haven’t been able to find out if this is true but I turned off my tagging anyway. It is all too easy to give away the exact location of these ancient creatures. More than a thousand rhinos were killed by poachers in South Africa last year.

They've survived 50 million years, will they die out in our lifetime?

They’ve survived 50 million years, will they die out in our lifetime?

I had posted one of my phone photos on Instagram before I knew this. Fortunately when I checked the image I found that it didn’t have any geographical data on it – possibly because I had only just woken the phone up and it hadn’t had time to lock on to the satellites before I took the picture (all the others I took at that time did have the location embedded in them, so I was lucky not to have posted any of them). I am writing here, 3 weeks after the event, hoping that enough time has passed and that the location is sufficiently vague that I won’t further endanger these beautiful creatures that, although they have been around for more than 50 million years (according to BBC Earth), may not be around for much longer because of mankind’s misplaced desire for their horn.

If the game drive had ended then, I would have been more than satisfied, but the best had been kept until the end. After stopping for a sundowner and watching the Sun set on this idyllic place, we set off using a spotlight to see if we could spot any off the night life. After a while another vehicle came towards us and their guide said “enjoy” as they passed. I was still tired from the lack of sleep on my flight over and wasn’t thinking straight, otherwise I would have picked up on this. As it was I continued in blissful ignorance for another ten seconds or so, until I spotted, silhouetted in the light of a second vehicle, a leopard walking towards us.

Torchwood in the torchlight

Torchwood in the torchlight

I picked up my camera, hurriedly adjusted my settings in the dark and then started shooting as the beautiful cat walked towards us and then along the side of our vehicle. He was so close I could have stroked him. As Matt turned our vehicle around to follow the felid, I rushed to review my photos, convinced that I had got the perfect shot. To my horror, I saw black frame after black frame. They were all seriously underexposed. I was, to put it mildly, very annoyed. I had blown the perfect photographic opportunity.

I had a few more chances to photograph Torchwood, the male leopard, as he rooted around an old termite mound looking for the warthogs that sometimes sleep there. None of the shots were particularly exciting so I’ll just have to go back and try to capture that perfect shot again, someday.

Shooting in RAW meant that when I got back to camp I was able to salvage a couple of photos through the magic of Photoshop. They will never win any prizes but they will remind me of the beautiful leopard that got away and of the importance of preparing my settings for night photography before it is too dark to see what I am doing.

The following morning we came across three orphaned sub-adult lions, two sisters and their brother. Their mother had been killed before they were fully independent but she had obviously taught them some hunting skills because they had managed to survive without her. Their hunting technique was a bit hit and miss and so the siblings were quite skinny.

The orphans

The orphans

We were told the youngsters had stumbled across an interesting method of capturing prey. They were operating in the very west of Sabi Sands, right by the boundary fence and had discovered that chasing prey into the high-voltage cables was an effective way to catch them. Apparently even lions like ready cooked food!

On the afternoon drive that day, we came across a large herd of cape buffalo, heading for the nearby waterhole. The hippos that were already there seemed unphased by the numbers coming to disturb their peace. There was the odd yawn, as they showed off their teeth as a warning to the intruders, but no obvious aggression.

The hippos kept well away from the buffalos

The hippos kept well away from the buffalos

The poor little blacksmith’s lapwings, which are ground dwelling birds, complained in vain, however, as the buffalos rampaged towards the water, trampling and destroying everything in their path, including the birds’ nests, as they went.

Later that night we were last on the scene, once again, at another leopard sighting. Sabi Sands has strict rules about the number of vehicles that can be at a sighting at any one time. It was now becoming clear that Matt’s tactic was to be the last to any sighting (unless, of course, he found it first). That way his guests could enjoy it for as long as they liked because no-one else was waiting to have their turn.

This time it was still daylight when we arrived at the location to find the two-year-old female resting on the side of a termite mound. She was panting quite heavily. We were told that this was a sign that she had eaten recently because the increased oxygen in her blood aided digestion.

As the light continued to fade I had time to set up my camera properly and to use a flash when it became necessary. This time I was happy with the photos that I took.

The leopard tucks into an impala

The leopard tucks into an impala

For three quarters of an hour we watched her as initially she lay there and then as she moved round the termite mound back to the impala that she had killed earlier. When the time came to return to the lodge for dinner, Matt apologised that we had missed our sundowners. Nobody complained.

Our final game drive at Idube was special too. Our desire to see a leopard in a tree was satisfied and improved by the presence of a rhino nearby. That sighting ended when the cat descended and moved away from the road into the very private Singita reserve, where we couldn’t follow.

Ironically shortly after that we came across another Singita vehicle at another leopard sighting. This time the leopard was on land that Matt could traverse and the Singita vehicle had to stay on the road while we manoeuvred round the bushes until we were right beside her. It was amazing just how close these animals let the vehicles get.

Just checking!

Just checking!

As we watched the female, she raised her head long enough to check that the two approaching rhino weren’t going to be a problem before relaxing again. She panted quietly because she, too, had fed recently. Two leopard and rhino sightings in one day. I was beginning to wonder if the two species came together regularly in Sabi Sands.

We had increased the number of leopards we had seen by almost 50% in just two days. It was a fitting end to the first part of our adventures in Sabi.